After Robert Alexander died at 51 during heart surgery in June 2018, he was brought to his uncle's farm in Oklahoma, where his six siblings, mother and other family members and friends had gathered to give him a home funeral.
A mechanic, Alexander had loved motorcycles, though his health and finances had kept him from being a regular rider. His family laid him out on a sturdy folding table and dressed him in well-worn bluejeans, a Harley-Davidson bandanna, a long-sleeved T-shirt and his black leather vest painted with the American flag.
Then they gathered around him, and a brother-in-law took a family photo using his smartphone.
"We couldn't think of a time when all of us had been together with Mom," sister Tawnya Musser said. "So we had the conversation. Did Mom want a photo with all seven of her children, and was it morbid that one of them was dead?"
In a collision of technology and culture, of new habits and very old ones, we are beginning to photograph our dead again.
For families like Alexander's who are choosing home funerals and following natural death practices — DIY affairs that eschew the services of conventional funeral parlors — photography is an extension and celebration of that choice.
"You can die in a way that has beauty attached," said Amy Cunningham, 64, a funeral director in New York City.
"The photograph seals the emotion. And with cellular phones ever-present, we're going to be recording all kinds of things. Death is just one of them."
That leaves the question of what to do with the photos. Many end up being posted on social media, where it can be jarring to find them tucked between a picture of someone's dinner and a cat video.
And there's the issue of how to react to the pictures. "Liking" them seems inappropriate to many people.
When Louise Rafkin posted a photo of her mother on Facebook the night of her death at 98 in September with her golden retriever at her side, it rattled some family members and friends.
"I was crazy about my mom, you couldn't 'like' the photos, and I wasn't fazed by her being dead," said Rafkin, an author and martial arts teacher in Oakland, Calif. "There are ways you can make this meaningful. Although I'm not religious, I am a deep believer in ritual and how that can heal and provide context."
The Facebook post was a way to announce the death, Rafkin said, adding, "I'm pretty sure my mother would have disapproved, and that's a tad unsettling. 'No folderol,' she said about the whole process."
Her family members had mixed reactions. While calling the photograph beautiful, Ashley Peterson, Rafkin's niece, said that posting it online "could make people uncomfortable and leave an image in their minds they did not want to see."
The discomfort comes from society having kept death at arm's length, said Bess Lovejoy, the author of "Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses," published in 2013.
"We've been so disconnected from death in the last century or so," she said. "But we are returning to the older ways ... a movement backward that some say began in the '70s, with the back-to-nature movement and midwifery and natural births. The natural death movement is part of that.
"These photos are unsurprising, too, because we carry our smartphones all the time, and it's almost like if there isn't a photo it didn't happen. Now everyone is a photographer."
Coming full circle
Modern photography was born in 1839, when Louis Daguerre refined a process for capturing an image on silver-plated copper.
For decades, one of the most common uses of this new technology was the post-mortem photo, an artfully composed image, taken by a professional photographer, of dead family members in all manner of poses: dead children in the laps of their parents, often with their eyes painted open; dead adults dressed in their finest clothes; even dead parents holding their living children; or entire families, wiped out by diseases like cholera, typhoid or diphtheria, nestled together in bed.
These were prized mementos, most often the only photograph that was ever taken of the subject, said Stanley Burns, founder of the Burns Archive, a collection of post-mortem and medical photos based in New York.
The photos in Burns' "Sleeping Beauty" books (there are three) are both ghoulish and gorgeous. Burns pointed out that the subjects tended to look pretty good, because the plagues that felled them did so quickly.
What curtailed post-mortem photography — and the elaborate mourning rituals behind it — according to Burns, was World War I. "There was so much death," he said.
"What's happening now is that people are taking back that process," he said. "But the impulse to photograph is the same as it was for the Victorians. They want to show they have seen their person through to the end. 'I've done this work, I've loved her to the end.' It's your last bond, and you want to document that."